THE EMPEROR JULIAN
PAGANISM AND CHRISTIANITY
GERALD HENRY RENDALL
THE LAST ORACLE
Dark the shrine and dumb the fount of song thence welling,
Save for words more sad than tears of blood, that said:
Tell the king, on earth has fallen the glorious dwelling,
And the watersprings that spake are quenched and dead.
Not a cell is left the God, no roof, no cover;
In his hand the prophet laurel flowers no more.
And the great king's high sad heart, thy true last lover,
Felt thine answer pierce and cleave it to the core.
And he bowed down his hopeless head
In the drift of the wild world's tide,
And dying, Thou hast conquered, he said,
Galilean; he said it, and died.
Appendix_ Julian against the Galileans
1. Roman Religion.
The birth of Christ sounded the knell of Paganism. Though from distant and despised Judaea the wailing of the banshee was inaudible to Roman Paganism, at almost the same time the ancient religion of Rome underwent a final revolution. Old faiths had long been refluent. At the close of the Republic they were abandoned and replaced by new.
The inauguration of the Empire of Rome synchronizes in some sort, and by no means accidentally, with an abdication of Empire by the old gods. Amid the varying types of Paganism, representing sometimes Greek estheticism, sometimes Scythian savagery, sometimes Oriental sensuousness, sometimes Egyptian repose, it had been the pride of Roman Paganism to be above all else patriotic.
Lacking the exuberant richness of Hellenic art and poetry, spurning alike the mystic piety and the voluptuous self-abandonment of the hot East, it strove with characteristic earnestness and consistency to be intensely national. Even before the Republic fell the power and the genius of the primitive religion died utterly out. Rome haughty, self-reliant, mistress of the world, needed no longer the aid of gods to win her victories; the soul of Roman religion had evaporated, and the young Empire proclaimed its disappearance. Before imperialism and cosmopolitanism the very conception of patriotism had withered: it could not breathe or live in that atmosphere.
Next after being patriotic Roman religion had been moral: it had personified (such was its one effort of imagination) the moral virtues, and set these personified abstractions to superintend every sphere and occupation of life. But in an age of much superficial culture and still more of vast material civilization, bringing with it luxury and enervation and their habitual concomitants widespread social and personal immorality, the homeliness and simplicity of the old faith had been abandoned.
Faith, early cramped by the pedantry of a fatuous theology, had first degenerated into formalism, and then fallen an easy prey to rationalism, skepticism or all-pervading Hellenism. As a system of faith extinct, as an agent of morality powerless, as a lever of patriotism decayed, it was chiefly as a political mechanism that the ancient religion survived. Augur could not face augur without a smile, but neither was the worse augur for that. The old forms were of service still.
They subsisted on the strength of their weakness. They were too harmless to evoke opposition: they were too useful to invite abandonment. They answered their purpose sufficiently well, and to supply their place, would have been tiresome. To the consolidation of Imperial government corresponded a consolidation, so to say, of State religion.
We are astonished to find Augustus actually taking in hand a religious revival; and emperor after emperor follows in his suit. Strange to say, when religion seemed most dead, there was a general restoration of temples, a new importance attached to worship and ceremonial, a higher regard for the sacred offices, a refreshed reverence paid to the Gods. This did not mean that the old faith was repossessing its lost dominion, but that a revolution in religion had occurred. Achieved facts received recognition, and religion was openly remodeled in accordance with their teaching.
Imperial religion presents as necessary and violent a contrast to the religion of primitive Rome, as Imperialism itself to senatorial rule. Its sole unity was of a political character. The Emperor's power needed every support that it could find, and religion promised to be one of the most valuable. It was effective as a police agent; it could be conveniently turned to a moral purpose, where policy and morality went hand in hand; and in a few cases its time-honored prerogatives enabled it to discharge as effectively and less offensively a censorship which required something more than a statutory sanction.
When the monarch became the fountain-head of law and authority, religion contributed its quota to his elevation. It was not enough that the Emperor should be Pontifex Maximus, the head of the religion; not enough that a lineal connection should be established between the mythical Gods and the Imperial house; the Emperor was made the object of religion as well. The deification of the Emperors proved a project as happy in result as it was audacious in conception.
It was no wonder that Emperors should foster religion which, more than anything else, conferred on them a prestige literally supernatural. In a manner, too, religion by this very step retained in a changed dress its old characteristic of nationality. Patriotism proper had of course died out; cosmopolitanism had transformed it into submission instead of self-sacrifice; loyalty to the State had become obedience to the Emperor. As patriotism has been the ruling element in the old religion, so in the new the keystone of the whole was reverence clustering round the person of the Emperor.
But the fossilization of the old State religion, and its virtual abandonment of all religious pretensions, could not kill the religious instinct. That remained active as ever, and needed to be provided for. This was done in the simplest and at the same time most comprehensive way, by giving it free scope. Every trace of the old jealous exclusiveness was forgotten.
Just as the constitution of Rome swelled from city to state and from state to world-embracing empire, so religion became as broadly cosmopolitan as the Empire itself. Henceforth Roman Paganism loses all unity except that of political allegiance already described. Strictly speaking it does not admit of treatment as a single whole. It breaks into innumerable forms of faith and worship, which alike by their complexity and independence defy analysis. But this multitudinous assemblage of creeds was constantly subjected to the action of various forces, intellectual, emotional, spiritual and mystical, the general drift of which can be roughly measured and traced. This we will attempt to do, at least in the case 0f those which bore most directly on the state of things preceding the era of Julian.
2. Philosophies Old and New.
The intellectual currents of the time are mirrored in the fortunes of the more conspicuous schools of philosophy.
Stoicism has first claim upon our attention. It produced its noblest representatives from a soil with so little outward promise as the Empire. Almost alone among the sages of antiquity, does Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor, with Epictetus, the Roman slave, deserve the epithet of 'holy,' not unjustly accorded by Pagans to his colleague and father-in-law Antoninus.
The influence of Stoicism was necessarily very partial: it was congenial only to the narrow circle of minds of a tone so pure and elevated and self-sufficing as to cherish virtue for the innate love and reverence they had for it. Through them it influenced others, but indirectly and imperfectly. For Stoicism, aiming at perfect apatheia, and inculcating an ideal of unapproached severity, provided neither lever nor fulcrum to lift earth-bound souls to the 'toppling heights of duty' set before them. On the religious side it never soared like Platonism, for its conception of religion was limited to duty and conduct. Neither transporting the emotions, nor kindling the imagination, it failed in effectiveness of appeal to the individual and unregenerate soul: it could not work conversions.
Its thinly masked materialism, its pantheistic degradation of the deity, its dreary fatalism, all combined with its forbidding severity to narrow and restrict its influence. It was, and was found out to be, wanting. It imparted to the best of its disciples a profound undertone of sadness and desolation. True it nerved a Thrasea Paetus here and a Helvidius Priscus there, fired a Lucan or embittered a Persius, but it never, for good or for evil, so much as touched the common crowd. For them it was useless. It provided no personal God; it offered no explanation of pain or misery or present evil; it promised no release from sin, no mode of sanctification; it enunciated that he who offended in one point was guilty of all; and yet in its entire annals it could not find one ideal wise man to satisfy the requirements of its law, and be the exemplar of them that came after: finally, it cut off hope in denying immortality. For such defects not even its lofty universalism could atone.
The first centuries of the Christian era show Stoicism becoming forlornly conscious of its own inadequacy. It ceased either to originate or refute. Its constructive and scholastic age alike were past. Wearied with fruitless disputation, hopeless of a sound criterion of truth, baffled or else satisfied in its researches into nature, it elaborated no further its treatises on formal logic or metaphysics, abstained from multiplying or exploding new theories of physics, and devoted itself to ethics alone. “Conduct, not theory is the end of philosophy”, writes Seneca; while Musonius, in the same spirit, reduced philosophy to the simplest moral teachings. Even here it had no heart to argue longer, and refine upon the relations or interdependence of differing forms of virtue.
In an age of flat unbelief and timorous superstition, of hopeless dissatisfaction and of passionate longing after securer truth, Stoicism despairingly conscious of universal and increasing degeneracy, fruitlessly battling against sin within and without, ceased to teach didactically, and wearily addressed itself to preach its gospel of sad tidings, or sadly to commune with its own soul and be still. Its very sternness became strangely and wistfully indulgent towards human frailty. Its great doctors become homilists or devotional writers, throwing themselves with vehemence or tenderness or importunate appeal upon the promptings of man's inner self, not endeavoring to convince the intellect but to move the heart. In its old age Stoicism fathomed new deeps in its vaunted “conformity to nature”.
To Paganism Stoicism was not antagonistic. It did indeed in its esoteric teaching scornfully reject the current mythologies, and deny the efficacy of prayer or ceremonial worship, but even here, by virtue of free allegorizing of ancient myths, of faith in prophecy dreams and divination (to which a doctrine of predestination was made to lend some rational support), and of belief in demons; and guardian genii, the Stoic philosopher found various points of approximation to the popular beliefs. In its exoteric utterances however it went far beyond this.
In the supposed interests of morality Stoicism pertinaciously upheld existing modes of faith and worship, and strove to confirm by a religious sanction individual conscientiousness and public virtue. Thus Marcus Aurelius, an Agnostic as regards his personal convictions, was yet as Emperor careful to observe all ancestral religious rites: and this not from simple indifference or sheer hypocrisy. The Stoic Pantheist discerned in Polytheism the popular expression of his own more enlightened Pantheism, and believed that the manifold Gods of the heathen were but partial, and, as it were, fractional representations of the unknown One, whom he had learned dimly to apprehend.
Towards Christianity, in so far as it differentiated that religion from other cults, Stoicism felt very differently. When in the person of Antoninus Stoicism mounted the throne of the world, both from the vigorous suppression of malicious sycophants, and from the tolerance accorded to the most pronounced Skepticism, the Christians hoped much. But neither petitions nor complaints availed to justify their expectations. Under the just and gentle sway of Marcus Aurelius persecution waxed fiercer than before.
Martyrdoms for the first time became numerous: torture apparently was now first employed to enforce apostasy. The records of the churches of Smyrna, of Lyons, of Autun, and of Vienne all testify the same tale. The ribald calumnies of detractors, and the defiant taunts of Christian Apologists, may have whetted the philosopher's dislike, but from the first Christianity must have roused his aversion rather than his sympathy.
The stern Stoic could have little tenderness for these stubborn and rebellious nonconformists. In favor of their Religion they could claim neither the ancestral sanction of Paganism, nor the prescriptive liberties of philosophic Skepticism. It was an impertinence for ignorant rustics and untaught artisans obstinately, contemptuously to spurn rites to which the cultivated philosopher yielded at least outward respect. Stoicism, in spirit if not in theory, was too exclusive and aristocratic to suffer common folk to share that intellectual freedom, that elevated atheism, which was the monopoly of the initiated few.
Of the inward purity and loftiness of Christian morality Stoicism knew nothing; the inscrutable courage and resolution imparted by it was imputed to sheer perversity; while the irrepressible proselitism of Christians, their enthusiasm and fanaticism, their infatuation and aggressiveness, their superstition and their bigotry, were as repulsive as they were unaccountable to the Stoic.
Epicureanism—and a wide latitude may be accorded to the term—deserves consideration next. In numbers, it distanced Stoicism hopelessly: no philosophy was so popular; it seemed to many the only philosophy that could strictly be said to survive. Intellectually however it was in stagnation. Throughout the Imperial epoch it produced not one exponent of first or even second-rate capacity. In his auction of philosophers Lucian lets Epicurus go for two minae: Skeptics and Cynics alone fetch a lower price.
For many years before Julian's accession Epicureanism was the one historic school unrepresented amid the chairs of Athens University. The inspired intensity of its great poet-apostle had rapidly burnt out. Men cared as little for the Atomic Theory, as the Gods of Epicurus cared for men. Epicureans, like Stoics, abandoned physics and metaphysics, and found no ethics worth teaching; dilettantes, with a thin veneer of spurious Hellenism, anxiously flattering themselves that they lived after some theory, they enlisted under Epicureanism as giving the most comfortable account of this life and the most absolute assurance that there was no life to come. As tutors, rhetoricians, barristers and wits they leavened society.
Epicureanism derived much amusement from attacks on the p0pular religion. It derided its superstitions, chuckled over its immoralities, and poked fun at its Gods. In the abandoned flippancy of its attacks it proves how completely religion had lost its hold on the upper classes of society. It did not attempt any semblance of reconstruction; for by the Epicurean the religious instinct was declared not to exist, and where created or inculcated to be bad and deserving of eradication alone. By exposing charlatanism, jeering at faith and ridiculing enthusiasm, he served partly to discredit, and still more to debase sinking Paganism.
Against Christianity Epicureanism felt no peculiar spite. Christians were possibly more simple and gullible than other denominations, but apart from that were well-meaning good-natured people, by no means adapted to make much stir in the world.
The Skeptic Philosophy proper was far too sterile and negative to be widely influential under the Empire or at any other time. Still small coteries went on thrashing chaff and demonstrating doubt, the certainty and desirability of which Sextus Empiricus among others syllogised in formal tropes, with the solitary flaw that logical demonstration was by his own showing proved impossible. Of dogmatic theology, Pagan Hellenistic or Christian, they said as of other things, that God and belief in God were equally probable, equally true, and equally untrue as any other hypothesis.
Such is the unattractive spectacle presented by the old philosophies. It is no marvel that efforts were made after new systems. From the inauguration of the Empire, and even earlier, Eclecticism—witness from very different sides Seneca and Lucian—was everywhere rampant. The new philosophies —if theosophies is not the more appropriate appellation— were eclectic attempts to harmonize more intelligently faith and reason.
Of these sects the Neo-Pythagoreans need very passing mention; they endeavored to reconcile polytheistic beliefs and practices with the transcendental conception of a supreme Being too exalted to be honored by sacrifices or named in words, and only to be dimly apprehended by pure reason as darkly prefigured or occultly manifested in the mystic symbols and numbers of Pythagoreanism.
A kindred but less abortive attempt presents itself in revived Platonism. The School of Plutarch, Apuleius, Galen, Celsus and Numenius flourished until merged in third-century Neo-Platonism. Men of piety conjoined with culture, dissatisfied alike with vulgar superstitions and with current intellectual negations, they sought in the defaced traditions of antiquity a record of the primitive revelation vouchsafed to man. With this view national beliefs were reverently but closely scrutinized. The result was the recognition of a supreme eternal invisible God, pure and passionless, and also of the immortality of the soul, whose proper aim was moral assimilation to God. Subordinate to the supreme deity were ranged superhuman powers and activities, who controlled the forces of nature, and regulated the affairs of men. Beneath these again were unnumbered daimones, peopling the universe and the intermundia, the authors of health and sickness, weal and woe: to them it was that prayers and sacrifices were offered, as the appointed mediators between God and man.
The truth of religion in Plutarch's view was irrefragably proved by the testimony of antiquity, by the evidences of prophecy and oracles, by miracles of mercy and visitations of judgment, by the efficacy of prayer and the revelations of the inner consciousness. He appealed alike to historical evidence and to individual experience.
His sympathies were singularly wide: he gladly recognized the soul of goodness in the thousand creeds and formulas of Paganism. Amid all the characteristic diversities of development he pointed to the central and animating truth which they with more or less of faithfulness represented. By their aid he strove to reconcile the supernatural with the rational, disarming the infidel by the same argument with which he refuted superstition. “The true priest of Isis is he who, having been taught by law the rites and ceremonies that pertain unto the Gods, examines the same by reason and philosophizes on the truth that they enshrine”. These principles he faithfully applied to the fabric of existing religions. Omens, for instance, were defended by a theory of predestination, a kind of ordered or pre-arranged harmony whereby for the believer the signs wore brought into correspondence with the event signified.
The eccentricities and imperfections of prophecies and oracular verses, out of which scoffers made great capital, were accounted for by distinguishing between what has been called dynamic and mechanical inspiration. “Not the language, nor the tone nor the expression nor the measure of the verse proceeds from the God;—all this comes from the woman. God but supplies the intuition and kindles in the soul a light for that which is to come”. Similarly the rationale of prayer, that is the converse of man with God, was to be found in its subjective effect. Images could only be defended as representations and reminders of the invisible deities, and such indeed in their origin they were, until an idle superstition perverted them from symbols into actual gods.
Thus there was at least one philosophy, which assailed the rationalism of Euhemerus and the atheistic materialism of Epicurus as sincerely and unsparingly as it denounced the credulity of superstition; which recognised in infidelity the counterpart and twin brother of superstition; and which endeavored to enlist against both the higher promptings alike of reason and of conscience. But while philosophy timidly conserved old faiths, or despondently proffered bare negations, the religious instincts of men carved for themselves more convenient channels in which to flow.
3. Hellenism and Mystery Worship.
Greek religion, originally derived from the East, had wholly changed the conceptions from which it took its origin. Repelled artistically by the grotesque ugliness of Phoenician religion both in its inward conceptions and outward representations, too full of joyfulness to bear with the cruelties of a Moloch worship or offerings of human blood, the Greek genius with a splendid imaginativeness recast the whole of its religion in an anthropomorphic mould. By a series of magnificent metamorphoses it repudiated a debased Fetichism, and substituted a graceful anthropolatry. As Egypt and the East were the home of symbol-worship, Greece was the nursery of myths. Such as they were, teeming with grace and beauty and gladness, yet as a religion destitute enough of moral elevation or depth of insight, Greek forms of belief attained a strong external and literary hold upon the people who professed them.
From its defects as a religion hardly less than its merits its as a mythology, Hellenism possessed unique power of adaptation to the taste or instincts of foreign nations. Everywhere commended by the supreme intellectual ascendancy of the Greek mind, everywhere communicated by the conquests of Alexander, it eventually not only naturalized itself in the religion of Rome, but spread from town to town throughout the East, from the shrine of Jupiter at Ammon or Venus at Dendera to the mouths of the Danube and Borysthenes, or the banks of the Indus and Jaxartes, until Greeks became in the East the generic name for Pagans. Sometimes supplanting, sometimes transfiguring, sometimes combining with preexisting faiths, Hellenism triumphed gloriously. But having neither moral depth nor historical foundation, it was as a religion helpless in battling against Skepticism. It yielded on the intellectual ground after strangely ineffective pretences at resistance, and fell back for influence and self-maintenance on the innate richness of its mythology, the wealth of its literature, the products of its art, the beauty and joyousness of its cults. These were calculated to command every admiration short of worship, from high and low together.
The moral and religious element, which had disappeared from Roman and had scarcely found a place in Greek religion, was supplied by the mysticism of the East. The irreligious religion of Greece had been from the first supplemented by various forms of mystery-worship, and the more as its failure to meet the religious instinct of men became increasingly apparent. The Greeks, we have seen, reconstructed their mother religions on an anthropomorphic basis; pretty and captivating as was the result, it necessarily fell, so far as its truth was concerned, before the advances of philosophy and science, though the beauty of the design secured it to the last wide popularity alike from the literary side and from that of external observance.
But the spiritual side having fallen into abeyance, the parent religion began, forthwith either Kronos-like to devour its own offspring, or else harmoniously to adopt it as partner of the same hearth and home. Roman religion, on the other hand, with its deeply religious sense, forbade all mystery-worship, and for long successfully kept it at bay: as Roman faith failed, and became enfeebled in moral aspiration and ideals, various forms of mysteries began to intrude. Full license was not accorded, until the public renunciation of national faith was formally announced in the deification of the Emperors, and the public advertisement given that the old gods were defunct. Plain folk could no longer believe in state Gods, when asked to recognize in the person of Caesar a God, a priest, an atheist all in one. The declaration of atheism was so explicit, that gods had to be sought elsewhere.
At a time when the oracles were wholly dumb, and faith burned very low, when men looked fondly back to “the dear dead light” of at least a sincere Paganism, when they saw the dishonored corpse of the old faith, for all its splendid trappings, simply the mark of ridicule and insult, when poor souls all the world over, utterly to seek for a Saviour or an exemplar or a divine voice of guidance, groped in darkness, what wonder that at such a time mystery-worship grew rampant? The mysteries of Mithras, Isis, and Serapis, the strange rites of Taurobolia and Kriobolia with their mystic interment of the neophyte and baptism of blood, professed at least to unveil the secrets of the hidden world, and supply a link between the unseen and the seen. Reinterpreting the ancient myths probably in a pantheistic sense, they at least averred that the world was not wholly forsaken of God, and in symbolic deed and word set forth the hope of immortality. In some particulars they furnish a strange and hardly accidental parody of the most sacred mysteries of Christianity. Not only was a long and painful preliminary training required of the catechumens of Mithras, the initiation of water, of fire, of fasting, and of penance, whereby as in the Christian Church the initiated might become first hearers, then worshippers, then illuminated or elect, and so pass into the body corporate of those admitted to the full esoteric revelation, but there were more direct imitations of Christian rites. There was baptism for the purification of sins, the unction of holy oil for the sanctification of life, and the oblation of bread and wine to serve as the bond of brotherhood.
But coupled with these rites were baser forms of worship, pandering to curious and diseased superstition. Magic, miraculous phenomena, invocation of the dead, visible apparitions of spiritual powers, were the unfailing accompaniment of all modes of mystery-worship. These brought in their train not only soothsaying and magic, demonolatry and necromancy, and all the arts called black, but came with their plague of lice as well as their plague of darkness: lewd and abominable rites, foul phallic emblems were employed to stimulate and satisfy the cravings of diseased minds. Thus shamefully prostituting the higher mission that they undertook, they at once degraded the intellect and polluted the soul.
Amid the fatigue of old faiths and philosophies, the tedious travail of new systems, and the invasion of pernicious superstitions, one only, faith philosophy or superstition, pressed steadily forward. Confounded at first with Judaism, Christianity soon shook itself free, and set out on its career of progress. It shunned publicity; it did not court the notice of the educated or the powerful; yet at the opening of the second century, oven high officials became aware that there was “a new superstition” abroad in the world; so novel indeed in kind, so strangely inoffensive and staid, so suspiciously loving and worshipful, as to call for the wisdom of an emperor fitly to discountenance it.
Its devotees were pronounced so far unblameable as to deserve punishment only when prosecuted, not inquisition for prosecution's sake. The next emperor has ascended the throne, and Christianity is found to have made a new step in advance. The new religion is infecting the wise as well as the foolish; is adopting a philosophic guise, is entering the field of literature, and pressing for at least a fair hearing of its claims. Christianity denounced as atheistic, as revolutionary, as immoral, busily refutes these charges.
It is the age of the Apologists. Gradually it abandons defense; the calumnies have become too stupid and flat to deserve reply; and Christian writers are engaged in coordinating Christian truth and doctrine with the lore of philosophers and the varied wisdom of the past. Christianity is in contact with the court; bishops are presented; Christian teachers are in correspondence with the Imperial family; nay, the Emperor himself is suspected of leanings towards the religion.
A very few years more, and Christianity is a recognized cult existing under Imperial sanction and legal protection. The rulers of the Church have become influential potentates, with whom it is no condescension for courts to intrigue. Not many years later we find the principal places in court about the Imperial person filled by Christians, amid whom are numbered the Emperor's wife and sister, and from whose ranks the shrewd Diocletian selects his own most confidential servants. Even numerically, Christianity at the accession of Constantine was the professed religion of a tithe of the inhabitants of the Empire.
Such in most rapid outline was its external progress: let us examine its relations to current religion, to society and to the State.
Paganism in its later stages has no more characteristic feature than the carelessness and prodigality of its polytheism. The spirit of cosmopolitanism, inaugurated by Pagan Caesar and consummated in the Edict of Caracalla, affected religion no less than all other parts of thought and life. Free-trade in religion was alike a recognized theory and an accomplished fact. It was a quite antiquated proceeding to chain the guardian gods to the walls of the beleaguered city.
Greek enterprise conveyed with it the national gods to favor the disposition of its wares, and in return transported home the deities of the countries where it dealt. At the great centres of commerce, Alexandria, Antioch, and the like, there lived side by side the strangest medley of heterogeneous gods:—gods of all origins, gods of all shapes and sizes, gods of all sexes and colors, found equal honor or dishonor from crowds of speculative worshippers. Athens, the city of temples, for fear of forgetting someone, reared altars to the unknown gods. Rome solved the same problem by building the Pantheon.
Such was the religious universalism of the day. The rival religions, prompted whether by generosity or indifferentism or the shrewdness of self-interest, conspired as a rule to favor and abet each other. One only excited universal opposition. Priests and false prophets at least, if none other, recognized the radical antagonism of Christianity to their pretensions. “If there is any atheist, Christian or any Epicurean here present, let him be cast out”. “No Christian admitted” was on the door of their sanctuaries.
Such was the obvious attitude for Pagan Clergy towards the new religion. To which side did public opinion incline? Unpopularity beyond a doubt was one of the trials which the early Christians were called to face.
Again and again they were the first victims of any general dissatisfaction. Not merely does Nero select them as the most agreeable sacrifices to popular rage; but if there was a plague, or an earthquake, an eruption or an eclipse, a famine or a fire, if the Tiber overflowed its banks or the Nile did not, the populace cried out, “The Christians to the lions”. The jealousies of Pagan priests and mystagogues, the imperiled interests of certain classes of artisans and employee’s account in part for this: but still more the character and effect of the religion itself. Atheism was a charge no less natural than damaging.
The fanaticism, eccentricity and apparent moroseness of Christians made fatally against them. The extravagance of individuals, for instance as criminals at the bar or as soldiers called on to take the military oath, discredited their faith: and dark charges of nightly license and strange sorceries of blood easily fanned prejudice into persecution. It was little by little and very slowly that the sterling virtue of Christians disarmed calumny and enforced respect. It cannot be safely said that before the time of Diocletian Christianity had ceased to be unpopular. But one among other things proved by his persecution is its strength in the affections of the people.
The treatment of Christianity by the State is quite another question. Religious persecution was an idea altogether alien to the genius of the Roman Empire. Incidentally, to be sure, to suppress patriotism or bridle some dangerous and ruling hierarchy, it might become necessary; but such persecution was political not religious. Rational polytheism naturally if not necessarily assumes the validity of other forms of belief.
The State did not profess any exclusive religious belief: the gods of each newly-conquered nation were duly catalogued without remonstrance among divinities: Olympus was open to all comers without competitive examination. Nay, it did not profess even a particular cult. In the solemn religious festival preceding the Marcomannic War Marcus Aurelius sent for priests from all quarters and of all cults, that all the gods might go with his arms.
Rome attributed half her success to her impartial treatment of all deities. Universal Empire was the due guerdon of universalism in religion. The persecutions of Nero and Domitian sprang it would seem out of mere caprice and malice. These excepted, it is those emperors who first descried the social and political powers and perils latent in Christianity, in other words the wisest and the most far-sighted, a Trajan, a Hadrian, or a Marcus Aurelius, who head the roll of reasoning consistent persecutors.
The commonest test imposed on recusant Christians was the essentially political, though nominally religious test of sacrifice to the genius of the Emperor. Persecution naturally enough grows more violent and more systematic in proportion as the politico-social power of Christianity is gradually realized. When Christianity was a provincial and plebeian affair, Trajan's gentle and limited persecution rescript is put forward as a remedy for local troubles and disaffections. Hadrian's edict bears the same impress: it is a salutary, if painful antidote, to relieve the pressure of local pain. Antoninus Pius explicitly ordains that Christians are no be punished when convicted of political crimes; while whoever accused them on the score of religion was liable to prosecution.
In Marcus Aurelius there is more of settled dislike and consistent suppression. We are informed, he writes, that the laws are violated by those called Christians; “let them be arrested and punished with divers tortures”. The Church was rapidly consolidating its internal government, and daily becoming a more formidable social power. The next real epoch in persecution is that, when “after long years the Accursed monster arose, Decius, to vex the Church”. Government being awake or at least waking to the sense that Christianity was a world-wide force, persecution ceases to be local and is made general.
The spasmodic fears of Decius become the settled policy of Valerian. For the first time an Emperor realized the full extent of the problem, foresaw that Christianity must either triumph or die. Sternly and thoughtfully he grappled with it. For the time the attack was foiled. It was renewed in almost precisely the same form, when forty years later the great tenth wave of persecution swept with overwhelming violence upon the devoted Church.
But the Diocletianic persecution proved that the Church need no longer plead for sufferance from the secular power, but could face it as an equal and make terms in virtue of its own strength. By that time the Christians had become not merely the Emperor's trustiest servants: they were also the backbone of the State. In the army entire legions were composed of Christians, in the great towns whole quartese were occupied by them. The time was gone by when they declined military service or official functions. From their numbers were recruited the most enterprising artisans, the most regular tax-payers, and the strength of the proletariate.
The old Empire was growing decrepit: it was not yet bedridden, yet had small strength longer to walk abroad: it could but just totter about its own domains and warn off intruders. It could not long bold out against increasing physical inanition: the steady decrease of population alone threatened it with rapid mortification. Few now married: still fewer produced offspring; and of offspring produced an abnormally large percentage perished in infancy. Physically as well as morally the best hope of the Empire lay in the Christians. For the successors of Diocletian the sole alternative was dull protracted civil war or unification of Church and State. Constantine's choice and execution of the wiser course constitutes his claim to greatness.
It is worth while in conclusion to gather into one focus the results obtained, and to summarize the state of affairs at the accession of Constantine.
The simpler, more unsophisticated Paganism of earlier ages is manifestly doomed. It might still indeed be seen sitting in its tomb like Charlemagne, clothed with insignia of pomp and the scepter of power, but void now of the living soul that had given to those outward emblems all their significance. Greek Philosophy as a decomposing agent had signally succeeded: as a constructive power it had no less signally failed. It had finally degenerated into stale moralizing.
To the rescue of prevalent unbelief various forces had I stepped forward—most conspicuously, mystery-worship and revived Platonism. The former appealed most effectively to the lower instincts, the latter lacked the historical foundations which it required and assumed. The world lay in ruins; current creeds and philosophies were like convicts piling and repiling heaps of waste shot. Probably nine out of ten educated men regarded faith as a thing of the past, skepticism as mistress of the future. Yet signs of a very different kind were not wanting.
Though the forms of religion had broken away, the spirit of religion was still quick; it had even developed: the sense of sin, an almost new phenomenon, began to invade Society and philosophy; and along with this, an almost importunate craving after a revelation. The changed tone of philosophy, the spread of mysticism, the rapid growth of mystery-worship, the revived Platonism, are all articulate expressions of this need.
The old Philosophy begins not only to preach but to pray: the new strives to catch the revealed voice of God in the oracles of less unfaithful days. If any religion was destined to prevail amid the downfall of all creeds and I mysteries, it had become manifest that that religion was Christianity.
The precise numerical strength of the Church is comparatively unimportant. Whether a fifth or a twentieth of Rome's subjects, the minority was formidable from its nature not its numbers. It was with the Church as with her martyrs. Be they counted by hundreds or by thousands, their blood was in either case the seed of the Church.
It was a new and astounding phenomenon that a religion had come into the world capable of producing martyrs at all. Of what other religion could it be said that its devotees “were only too ready to die”? In the teeth of an organized and concentrated despotism a new society had grown up, self-supporting, self-regulated, self-governed, a State within the State. Calm and assured amid a world that hid its fears only in blind excitement, free amid the servile, sanguine amid the despairing, Christians lived with an object.
United in loyal fellowship by sacred pledges more binding than the sacramentum of the soldier, welded together by a stringent discipline, led by trained and tried commanders, the Church had succeeded in attaining unity. It had proved itself able to command self-devotion even to the death. It had not feared to assimilate the choicest fruits of the choicest intellects of East and West. The main danger lay in the decomposing forces that threatened it from within. Yet it bid fair to triumph over these. It would hardly have to battle with a temper more impetuous and strong than Tertullian, an intellect more commanding and subtle than Origen: yet the centripetal forces were stronger; Tertullian had died an heresiarch, and Origen but narrowly and somewhat of grace escaped a like fate. If rent with schisms and threatened with disintegration, the Church was still an undivided whole.